Essay: Function of the Setting

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¶ … woman in a bad place: The setting of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles takes place in the fictional county of Wessex, a place in the North of England. The country location is deeply divided by class conflicts -- the poor Durbeyfields are representative of the lower classes, while individuals such as Alec d'Urberville are representative of the upper classes. The lower-class people like John Durbeyfield, Tess' father, are common in their tastes and enjoy drinking and fairs, while Alec d'Urberville enjoys living on a palatial estate, and the various services of many servants. Because Alec is 'to the manner born' he considers the attentions of lower-class women to be his birthright. However, even the aristocrats of the novel are provincial in their attitudes and their morality. This is perhaps best exemplified in the attitudes of Angel Clare, who marries Tess because he believes she is a pure and innocent girl, and then rejects her when he discovers that she was raped by Alec and had an illegitimate child who died. The remote location of Wessex suggests a backward place where old morals about a woman's purity still have a deep root, and which have a killing influence, versus the even older and life-giving pagan morality represented in the vestiges of May-dancing and Stonehenge.

The connection between Alec and Tess is established early on because Tess' father is in love with the idea of being part of the landed gentry. He learns his name is loosely linked to that of the ancient d'Urberville clan. The foolish, awestruck inability to understand what class divisions really mean in the Durbeyfield family are seen in the reaction to Mr. Durbeyfield's revelation: "Yes; and we'll all claim kin!' said Abraham brightly from under the bedstead. 'And we'll all go and see her when Tess has gone to live with her; and we'll ride in her coach and wear black clothes!'" (Chapter 4). Although the revelation that the Durbeyfields and d'Urbervilles are linked demonstrates the falseness of class constructs -- there is only a few letter's difference between the two names -- the power of social constructions, within the setting of the novel give the corruption of the d'Urberville's Norman name great weight. Alec has all of the social power in this English country setting, Tess has none.

Tess' father sends Tess away to the d'Urberville estate, which to Tess seems like another world, even though geographically it is not that far away -- however, due to the limited vision of the localized perspective of what makes a 'great man,' and Tess' limited experience, she feels as if she is being torn far away from her home. Tess' experience living in the country marks her physically and intellectually -- she still speaks with a thick dialect at the beginning of the novel, and blends in with the other members of her town. The only real, initial difference between Tess and other girls like her is her slightly greater beauty, symbolized by the ribbon she wears on a May festival day. "To almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and no more" (Chapter 2). Much like Angel Clare will see her -- not as a real woman, but a picture, Tess is seen as symbolic of country life.

When Clare first sees Tess she is dancing in a local May-time celebration -- ironically, an ancient fertility dance, although Clare does not appreciate this fact. The class divisions between men like himself and the girls are highlighted by a comment by one of his companions: "Dancing in public with a troop of country hoydens -- suppose we should be seen!" (Chapter 2). However, there is a sense that the primitive acceptance of sexuality is much more 'pure' than the conventional morality either of aristocrats like Angel and his friends or the narrow confines of the conventional, lower-class men and women. "The white gowns, the nosegays, the willow-wands, the whirling movements on the green, the flash of gentle sentiment towards the stranger -- to the yellow melancholy of this one-candled spectacle, what a step!" (Chapter 3). Ironically, in the novel Angel is considered to be the most progressive of his friends and family, but when confronted with a real-life situation that challenges his upbringing, he falls morally short, articulating common-place morality and stale ideas about beautiful, pastoral innocence. Class will reveal itself, and simply because Angel plays at becoming a farmer and is willing to work at a local dairy, as opposed to holding himself back from the lower classes (except sexually) like Alec, this has little impact upon Tess' world and life.

The irony of the comment about the girls as hoydens during May Day soon becomes apparent when Alec d'Urberville uses devious means to get Tess to sleep with him or rape her (Hardy never makes what transpires between the two of them entirely clear, implying that because Tess has so little social power in relation to Alec, it almost does not matter). Tess lives in a world where she is essentially the plaything of men. Tess is employed as a poultry-keeper at the estate, and Alec becomes symbolically like a proverbial fox in a henhouse. From the very beginning of their first encounter Alec accuses her of seducing him, illustrating the morals of his class, time, and location, although she serves at his will: "You artful hussy! Now, tell me -- didn't you make that hat blow off on purpose? I'll swear you did!" (Chapter 8). Tess goes to work for him, in obedience to her father, despite her fear -- and Alec uses his superior knowledge about sexuality and the geography of the area immediately around his home to force himself upon her. Alec pretends to be lost, so as to put Tess in a vulnerable position, and the physical weariness created by her hard labor further makes her vulnerable: "She was so tired after her long day and her walk that she confided her trouble to him -- that she had been waiting ever since he saw her to have their company home, because the road at night was strange to her" (Chapter 10).

In the country world of Wessex, women are defined solely by their relationships with men, their beauty and their social class. Tess' father renders his daughter vulnerable to secure his own name and interests: Tess is ruined because her reputation is ruined, particularly because of the smallness of the area, and the smallness of people's minds, although Alec remains unscathed. "The event of Tess Durbeyfield's return from the manor of her bogus kinsfolk was rumored abroad, if rumor be not too large a word for a space of a square mile" (Chapter 13). Escape seems impossible. Tess, after her rape, makes her world even smaller, retreating to the room of her home: "The bedroom which she shared with some of the children formed her retreat more continually than ever" (Chapter 13). Only at night can she wander by herself, and be away from prying eyes. She feels like a part of nature, can she avoid being judged. The child she gives birth to as a result of her rape is unbaptized and put in unconsecrated ground, but Hardy suggests that the makeshift baptism Tess carries out is really more holy than anything that might be performed by a legitimate priest.

Tess tries to shake off her sordid past by changing her location, but she can only go to another area of the country, and find another menial job amongst animals, this time as a milkmaid. Her situation effectively remains the same, and she even reencounters Angel Clare in this setting. Clare thinks that by learning and participating in real farming methods he can change the world,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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